I practically slammed my front door shut in a hurry this morning, though not because I slept in. Not at all. In fact, since technically I didn’t sleep (as usual), even semantics agreed with me. Anyways, the reason behind my hurried departure was quite prosaic: I forgot to set my alarm clock and I was so busy writing scathing critiques on the net about a certain B-movie adaptation of a certain famous mystery/horror novel that I was almost ten minutes late with my morning routine. Maybe that didn’t sound so bad, until one realized that said meticulously planned sequence of day-starting rituals only had an error-bar of about thirty seconds. Because of this my entire day started off with the wrong foot, compounding in my current predicament.
Once I made sure the door was locked, I turned around and rushed down the street. I didn’t run though. Doing that would have been as good as admitting that I messed up. Instead I just... marched very rapidly, but in a calm and very casual manner that in no way looked weird or forced. No sir. That aside, I rounded the corner leading to the street with Judy’s house and all of a sudden the air was pushed out of my lungs by a bony impact.
I staggered back (while still maintaining a very casual and in no way frantically rushing appearance) and scanned the area for the source of said impact. It wasn’t particularly hard to find the culprit, as Judy was sitting on her butt right in front of me. Let’s just say one didn’t need to have Sherlock Holmes’ intellect to connect the dots at that point.
“Soffy...” She mumbled in a huff while rubbing the top of her head.
“I told you to pay attention when you are walking on the street,” I chided her half-heartedly and offered her a hand.
“Fhanfs,” She mumbled again once I helped her onto her feet, and it was around this time I was glad I wasn’t drinking anything at a moment, otherwise I would have had a spit-take on the spot.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I started after quickly clearing my throat, “But is that a piece of toast in your mouth?”
My assistant nodded, the brown slice of bread animatedly dangling by its corner in front of her chin like a bell on a string.
“I faf ifn a fhuffy. I fheft ifn.”
“Don’t talk when your mouth is full.”
She nodded again and then a moment later the toast began disappearing into her mouth like a classified document into the shredder, filling her cheeks to the point where she looked like a particularly well-fed hamster. It was about this point that even the last shred of my poise left me and got replaced by an amused grin I couldn’t stifle no matter how hard I tried.
Anyways, once my assistant was done devouring her late breakfast she repeated, “I was in a hurry. I slept in.”
“Only a little,” I replied while checking my phone for the time. “We can still get to school at our usual pace if we start moving now.” She nodded and wordlessly fell beside me as I started walking. I glanced over to her, and after some hesitation I told her, “By the way, that was really clichéd.”
“The whole ‘running into someone with a toast in your mouth’ thing.”
“Was it?” Before I could answer she already whipped out her phone and her fingers began dancing on the touch screen like a five-legged ballerina. I would have warned her about doing that while walking, but at this point I gave up on trying to keep her from doing it, so instead I just sighed and resigned myself to paying attention for two so that she wouldn’t get hurt from something. For example, from falling into an uncovered manhole. Like the one right in front of us.
I sighed again and gently pulled her to the side. She wasn’t exactly in danger of falling in even if I didn’t do that, but it was better to be safe than sorry. By the way, who leaves a manhole on the side of the walkway uncovered on the first place?! That’s just gross negligence. If someone falls into that, they could get hurt really badly.
I was about to stop and start looking for some sort of warning sign I could place in front of the hole when Judy tugged on my sleeve. I faced her, and to my surprise she had an unusually serious look in her eyes.
“I looked up the toast thing. It definitely wasn’t on purpose,” She stated dryly.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. And then she nodded again. I figured that meant she was extra-sure. I smiled and waved my hand dismissively and we began to walk once more.
“Relax, I knew that already. I just thought it was amusing,” She looked at me questioningly, so I added, “I mean, I didn’t think you would be the one invoking the trope.”
“Hm?” I grunted, thrown off by the non-sequitur.
“Who did you think would do it?”
“Well, all things considered, the most likely candidate was...” I got exactly this far when the gods of comedic timing decided they were out for my blood and I was once again assaulted by a hard impact on my chest as we were rounding a corner. This time I instinctively braced myself and the person who collided with me pretty much just bounced off and hit the ground with a soft thud. I shook myself and groaned aloud.
“That makes it...” I paused as I finally recognized the girl sitting on the asphalt and my hand immediately lashed out to point a finger at her direction. “That makes it twice today! What the hell!?”
“Faftf mfy fifne!” The blonde girl glared at me from the ground while cradling her head in her hands, a neatly fried French toast defiantly hanging from the corner of her mouth like a particularly clumsy trapeze artist.
“Don’t speak when your mouth is full,” Judy parroted my earlier line at her. The princess flushed red and proceeded to devour the toast in about three bites. It was a little scary to watch. She didn’t even chew!
Once she finished, she jumped to her feet and returned my pointed finger with a scowl that was half offended and half embarrassed.
“I said, that’s my line! Pay attention to where you are going!”
“I was!” I answered, deeply hurt, but before I could continue my assistant began tugging at my sleeve.
“You were right about the toast.”
“I suppose...” I answered vaguely. I actually wanted to say I thought it was Angie who was most likely to do the cliché with Josh, but hey, I’m not above taking credit when it’s freely handed out. It’s not like I have high standards.
“So, did you sleep in?” I asked as I turned to the girl on the front with an amicable smile.
“I most certainly didn’t!” She sounded about as peevish as I expected.
“If you say so... But then why were you in such a hurry?”
“I was...” She started, but then suddenly clamped her own mouth shut and glared at me like I asked her a trick question. “It’s none of your business.”
“She was going the wrong way too,” My assistant noted impersonally, earning a glare of her own. It was somewhat reassuring that I wasn’t the only one in the crosshairs for a change. Refreshing, even. But then again, Judy’s question was actually a good one. While we lived in the same neighborhood, the princess actually lived a little closer to the school than we did. Not only that, we generally used different streets to get there, so us running into each other was unlikely to begin with, but she was also going the opposite way when she bumped into me. I had a few ideas for her reasons, but I decided voicing my suspicions in front of her would have been counter-productive. As such, I simply shrugged my shoulders and nodded towards the street.
“Doesn’t really matter. We should get going though, or we will be marked late.”
I started walking, and before I knew it the two girls fell beside me on either side. I was about to resign myself to an awkwardly silent commute for the rest of the way, but to my sincerest surprise the princess cleared her throat and gave us a smile that was only about 80% fake.
“So... What did you do yesterday?”
I raised a single brow at the unexpectedly direct question. I quickly regained my composure and let out an awkward laugh.
“Nothing in particular. I spent most of the day reading this webcomic I was interested in for a while. It’s about these space-cowboys with a kickass ship that...”
“W-Wait! What are you talking about?! You were in town! Errr... I mean, weren’t you in town? You said you two would go somewhere, didn’t you?”
“Oh, that?” I smiled and glanced at my assistant.
“I had family business,” She spoke right away without missing a beat.
“Oh, speaking of which; how was your uncle?”
“He is recovering well. He should be out from the hospital in a week.”
“He got lucky,” I nodded wisely. “Why was he in the sewer in the first place?”
“Something about ‘everything floating,’” Judy continued without even the slightest bit of hesitation. “He hit his head pretty bad.”
“Yeah, something about alien spiders masquerading as mimes, right?”
“No, that was from before he hit his head. He said the mime has been following him since he was a kid.”
“He should get better though. He says he defeated it by hitting its glowing underbelly with a silver slingshot bullet.”
“Really? Wasn’t that only supposed to work on werewolves?”
“I’m not an expert, but he said it worked. He threw it into a big hole and it no longer follows him.”
“Well, that’s one way to get over paranoid delusions, I suppose…”
“All right, I get it!” The princess burst out (and between us). “Stop making fun of me! I know you are talking about that movie!”
“What movie?” I asked innocently.
“We didn’t see any movie,” Judy doubled down with a denial of her own.
“Yes you did! Yesterday, in the cinema!”
“Really?” I smiled wickedly as I leaned closer. “And just how would you know that?”
“I...” She paused, then fell silent, then slowly began building pressure like a volcano, an analogy which she dutifully followed up on by exploding all over us a few moments later. “Shut uuuuuuuup!”
With that she turned on her heels and dashed away at breakneck speeds. I rolled my eyes and made my hands into a funnel.
“Slow down princess, you are going to hurt your ankle again!”
She immediately came to a screeching halt, though she still managed to reach the end of the street by then. She whirled around, pointed at me and yelled so hard I could clearly hear it even from that distance.
“Shut up! I hate you! Both of you! And your stupid mime movie!”
With that, she turned away from us and began running away, though at a much less dangerous pace. Let’s call that a small victory. I turned to Judy with a small smirk and gave her an appreciative nod.
“Good improvisation there.”
She blinked at me (or maybe she just blinked in general, it was hard to tell), but then she faced forwards and gazed at the slowly disappearing form of the princess.
“Do you think she really hates me?”
I grunted dismissively.
“Nah, it’s probably quite the opposite. She is contrary because she is shy.”
Judy continued gazing after her for a few more seconds before she muttered, “She is complicated, isn’t she?”
“A little, but who isn’t? Come on, we should get going too.”
Judy nodded, but we could only take a couple of steps before we were once again halted by some fresh faces entering the picture in the form of Josh and Angie rounding the corner in front of us. They were looking in the direction where the princess left, so they didn’t notice us until we were almost right on top of them. I hesitated a bit, but at last I just shrugged and called out to them, though maybe a bit louder than strictly necessary.
The two of them didn’t really twitch as much as they nearly jumped out of their skins. Angie recovered first and she flashed me an upbeat smile that barely had any visible traces of embarrassment.
“Morning Leo! Fancy meeting you here!”
“What a coincidence,” Josh added with much less success at trying to hide his guilty conscience.
“Not really,” Judy interjected, “We take the same way to school.”
“Yeah, we only met up a little earlier than usual.”
Josh chuckled awkwardly at my comment for a while, at least until he remembered that the ball was in his court and he quickly used the opportunity to change the subject.
“So, was that Elly?”
“Yeah,” I answered nonchalantly as I began walking, pulling the rest of the group with me. “She slept in and was in such a hurry she went the wrong way.”
“Really? And why did she yell she hated you?” Angie inquired with her head poking over Judy’s shoulder.
“Just the usual.”
It must say something about our daily interactions that this explanation was deemed one hundred percent satisfactory by everyone present. We walked in silence for a while, until Josh didn’t seem to be able to hold back his curiosity any longer.
“So... What did you guys do yesterday?”
I glanced over at my assistant’s direction and found her doing the same. There was something decidedly mischievous in her eyes, though in retrospect it might have been just the reflection of me.
“Nothing in particular. I was mostly reading this webcomic about these awesome space-cowboys, and...”
The school’s rooftop was somewhat windy but otherwise pleasantly warm for the season, the kind of weather that was just begging for everyone to get together and have a giant ad-hoc picnic under the bright blue skies. Sadly the others didn’t share my enthusiasm, so it was only Judy and I sitting on our customary bench and eating our typical lunches.
“They refused to talk to you too? How cold.”
“Indeed,” My assistant agreed with me between two bites of her usual sandwich. “Amelia did ask me a few questions though.”
“Really? About what?”
“About how I knew they were betting yesterday.”
“Oh, right. You called her up,” I mused while trying to figure out if I should eat my fish sticks with mayonnaise or ketchup. In the end I decided on both, though not at once. “What did you tell her?”
“That you used your newly developed psychic powers to spy on them and told me about it.”
“Hey!” I protested aloud as I took a page from Angie’s book and pointed a piece of deep-fried sea-life at her in a decidedly accusing manner. “I told you that was a secret.”
In light of this new information though, all those times the class rep was bothering me with her First Earth Battalion Standardized Test Papers (patent pending) between the morning lectures started to make a lot more sense.
“It’s refuge in audacity,” She replied between bites. “Because it’s her, the others would be less inclined to believe her and would think that I was joking.”
“That’s...” I paused and tried not to furrow my brows too hard, but to no avail. “Did you just steal my modus operandi?”
“I did my homework,” She answered with her casual monotone, but then she capped it off with a wink while somehow keeping the rest of her facial muscles completely motionless. It was so sudden and unexpected that I involuntarily laughed out.
“Ha! Clever girl! If you continue like this, I might even promote you to chief-assistant. For now, you can have a bonus,” I sarcastically offered her my molded fish-meat product, and she bit down on it without blinking an eye. She bit, chewed and swallowed it in less than three seconds and then she looked at me with eyes even more deadpan than usual.
“What am I, a dog?”
“You took the treat.”
“Because turning down food is rude.”
“Sure,” I smiled and held out the other half of the fish stick. She looked at it for a moment, uncertain about what to do, but then a blink of an eye later she snatched it out of my fingers and plopped it into her mouth.
“You are lucky these are tasty. Otherwise I would consider this teasing. And then I would sulk.”
“No you wouldn’t.” I chuckled and lightly shook the box in my hands. “By the way, you can have more if you’d like. I’ve got plenty.”
She glanced at the pre-made lunchbox in my lap and nodded.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
She reached out for the box and picked another piece, but as she was about to raise it to her mouth there was a sudden, loud bang on the rooftop. It startled her and the fish stick slipped from her grasp, landing with a thump accompanied by a soft “Ah!” from her mouth. She gazed longingly at the deep-fried aquameat bar on the concrete before she glanced up at me.
“Five second rule?”
“No! We are outside. Take another one; I will throw that out later.”
Before she could reach for the new piece though, the source of the previous loud noise began making its way towards us. Well, fine; technically it was the rooftop access door that made the noise, but let’s not get bogged down in semantics. Anyways, once he found us, which wasn’t that hard considering that the two of us were the only students on the roof this time, Josh briskly walked over and stood in front of me with a difficult expression.
“Man, I need your help.”
“What was that?” I turned to Judy with faked puzzlement plastered all over my face. “Did you hear that? I could have sworn I heard Mister Cold Shoulder a moment ago... but there’s no one here.”
My friend curtly rolled his eyes and flashed an almost growling grimace in the process.
“Ha-ha. Very funny. Listen, sorry for ignoring you, which you brought upon yourself, by the way...”
“It really is strange,” My assistant nodded with her cheeks full of fish fillet. “You are right. Quite eerie.”
Josh slumped his shoulders in defeat and let out a pained noise.
“Fine, I get it! I already apologized, what else do you want?”
I sighed and finally looked him in the eyes.
“All right, what’s the problem? Did you have another fight with Angie?”
“No, it’s the transfer student!”
That raised a brow.
“You mean the princess?”
“No!” Josh all but yelled in exasperation. “The other one!”
Now, that raised two eyebrows.
“Another one? We didn’t get a new transfer student.”
“She is not in our class. She is a freshman in 1-A.”
It was around this time the puzzle pieces finally began to fall into place in my head.
“Let me guess: She is your stalker from before.”
“Yes, she is the girl who... Wait, how did you know that?”
“He is psychic,” My assistant blurted out between two bites. I sent her a sharp glance in return.
“No, actually this time it was just simple deduction. Also, stop stealing my food.”
“You gave it to me.”
“I offered you some, not the whole box! I only ate a single one and half the box is gone already!”
“Stingy.” She looked down at her own package and offered me one of her sandwiches. “Exchange?”
I tried my hardest to stay mad at her, but in the end I just snorted and took the offer, and before I could say anything she already snatched another fish stick.
“Listen guys, your little quarrel is cute and everything, but I need help here! Seriously!”
I turned my attention back to Joshua while absent-mindedly unwrapping my new acquisition.
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“She wants to marry me!”
I was about to bite into my sandwich, but that made me pause and lower it back down.
“Yeah! She declared it when she attacked me on the first floor hallway.”
He looked at me like I was a particularly dim kid who needed simple concepts explained.
“I’m too young to marry!”
I blinked at him and, after carefully placing the unwrapped sandwich beside my depleting seafood-reserves, I facepalmed so hard it might have even left a mark.
“You know, just because she wants to marry you, it doesn’t mean you automatically have to.”
“Dude, you don’t get it.” Josh’s cheeks suddenly flushed red and he sheepishly averted his eyes. “She is very… persistent.”
“Uh-huh.” I must have sounded even more skeptical than I intended, for Joshua gave me a look so severe I momentarily entertained the idea of taking a picture of it and selling it as bear-repellant. I sighed once again and crossed my arms. “So, how exactly am I supposed to help you?”
“Idunno… You are the one who is good with girls; I figured you can give me some advice or something…”
“Wait, hold on. Me? Good with girls? Didn’t we already establish this was an unfounded rumor?”
Instead of answering Josh only glanced at my assistant, who happened to be in the middle of trying to simultaneously take another fish stick and sneak another of her sandwiches into my lunchbox without me noticing. I raised a questioning eyebrow at her, and for her credit, she had the decency to redden a little bit.
I finally gave up and just took the whole box and put it into her lap.
“There, you can have it if you really like it.”
She looked blankly at the remaining fried fish fractions and promptly returned it into my lap while saying, “It’s no fun like that.”
So she really was doing it for attention! However, before I could properly express my disapproval over her behavior, my attention was drawn away by a smooth metallic sound as the well-oiled hinges of the door leading to the roof gave way. A moment later a familiar face emerged from the doorway, her long, impossibly white hair gently blowing in the previously established breeze. With each step she swung her otherwise rather petite hips like she was walking down a runway, though to be fair, she managed to make the uniform she was wearing look borderline glamorous. Now that I had an attire-baseline for comparison, I had to say that as far as raw attractiveness was concerned she was easily on the level of the princess.
“Darling, where are you? I don’t mind if you want to play hard-to-get, but there is no reason for you… to…”
The sultry voice of the girl entering our vision slowly faded to a whisper as she noticed me sitting on the bench. I shook my head disapprovingly and sighed.
“Y-Yes?” She stuttered as her previous seductive strut came to a guarded stumble. She awkwardly held her hands in front of her chest and refused to meet my gaze.
“What did I tell you about the vamp act?” She averted her eyes even further and mumbled something under her breath. “I couldn’t hear you.”
She stepped closer and spoke again, her voice impossibly soft.
“You said I shouldn’t try it on Joshua.”
“And then what did you do?”
She finally looked at me and her eyes were filled with uncertainty. “I… I couldn’t help it.”
I shook my head again and sighed, but before I could say anything my friend raised his voice in disbelief.
“Wait a minute! You two know each other?!”
“Yeah, we ran into each other a few times,” I smiled at the motionless girl on the front. “Right, Snowy?”
She nodded meekly, but Josh didn’t let up just yet.
“Snowy? Is that her name?”
“Wait, you haven’t been formally introduced yet?” She shook her head, so I waved for her to step closer and when she did so I turned to Joshua. “Josh, this is Snowy.”
“Actually, her name is Neige Liliam Inanna,” my assistant interrupted, prompting a puzzled eyebrow from me.
“Wait, how do you know that?”
“You told me on Friday.”
As I thought about it, I could faintly remember off-handedly mentioning the name to her at one point or another.
“I keep forgetting about your amazing memory.”
“Don’t worry, I will remind you.”s
“Thank you very much,” I told her with a smile that was only the slightest bit strained before I returned my attention to the duo in front of me. “Anyways, Snowy, this is Joshua Bernstein, aka the guy you have been stalking.”
“You didn’t have to put it like that...” She muttered dejectedly, a response which I promptly ignored.
“So!” I abruptly clapped my hands, startling everyone present, and smiled. “Handshake!”
The two of them blinked at me in unison, but nevertheless their hands moved as if on their own accord. They both stared at their clasped hands like they didn’t understand what was happening, but after a few awkward moments they finally proceeded to engage in a limp-wristed handshake while simultaneously trying to out-blush the other. I silently groaned and shook my head. They continued with the lifeless handshake for several long and increasingly uncomfortable seconds until they thankfully stopped, took a step back and began to restlessly gaze at their toes.
At last Josh sidled up to me and whispered; “Now what?”
“What do you mean ‘now what?’ Talk to her.”
“But I don’t know what to say! She is acting completely…” He paused, apparently looking for the proper words. “… different from before! What did you do to her?”
“Then why isn’t she...” Josh animatedly wiggled his brows in the silent girl’s direction. “... you know...”
“It’s because she entered into the range of the chief’s womanizer aura. It’s like when a predator goes into another’s territory. It makes them nervous and subdued. Nature in action.”
I frowned at the girl sitting at my side, who by the way continued to periodically pilfer my food reserves without the slightest of reservations.
“I told you that I’m not a womanizer. Also, if you don’t stop that, I will have to cancel your dental plan.”
She looked back at me, fake surprise sparkling in her eyes, but her hand still moved to take the last vestiges of my lunch.
“I have a dental plan?”
“And you removed it because I took your food?”
“... Are we returning to an abusive relationship?”
I groaned aloud.
“Not now, we have other things to do.”
It was around this point when Snowy began slowly backing away with an apologetic smile forced onto her face.
“I’m sorry... I think I better leave.”
“Wait,” I instructed her, and she obediently stopped in her tracks. I placed my nearly empty lunchbox back into Judy’s lap and stood up, grabbed Josh by the shoulder and pushed him towards the still idling girl on the front.
“What are you...?!” My friend protested my rough handling of him, but due to the difference in our bulk he couldn’t really stop me.
“Okay, you two. See that bench over there? Nice, secluded? A perfect place for explaining yourselves and discussing misunderstandings, don’t you agree?”
“Wait, don’t I have a say in this?”
“You came to me for help, now don’t complain if the medicine is bitter,” With that and one last push I shooed them away. They both looked at me funny, but at last they walked over to the bench I indicated and grudgingly sat down. I sighed in exasperation and took my seat next to Judy again.
“Hm?” I didn’t get what she meant at first, so she nodded towards the two awkward teenagers in the middle of engaging in awkward teenagerness. I shrugged nonchalantly. “Nah, I’m just leveling the playing field while also trying to get ahead of any annoying developments. The less awkward romance-hijinks there are on the long run, the better for everyone.”
“I see.” My assistant gazed at the two for a few seconds before she returned her attention to me. “What are they talking about?”
“I don’t know. Right now they are probably looking for the right words to start a conversation while trying to avoid eye contact.”
“Can’t you just listen in on them?”
I awarded my assistant a flat look and lightly shook my head.
“No. I’m not going to intrude on their privacy. I’m no voyeur.”
Judy was about to open her mouth, no doubt either to voice her admiration of my moral character or to deliver another of her verbal jabs. Sadly, history may never know which it would have been, as instead our conversation was interrupted by Joshua’s voice.
“She is doing it again!”
I looked up and found him waving at me. Meanwhile Snowy looked crestfallen and was looking at me apologetically. I sternly waved a finger at her and she shrunk back like a wilting flower.
“Sorry, it wasn’t on purpose...”
Afterwards I kept an eye on them for a few minutes, and while it was a rough start with no small amount of stuttering, they finally began talking in earnest. It seemed like the previous intermezzo finally broke the ice, and while they still seemed uncomfortable, at least they were communicating.
“I see.” Judy nodded to herself at my side while she plopped the last of my fish bars into her mouth. I wiggled my eyebrow to urge her to explain herself, and after she swallowed she continued; “She got outside the effective range of your aura and she reverted.”
I sighed and offhandedly answered, “Very funny.”
“Thank you, I’m trying,” Whether she really meant that or not I couldn’t fathom, as my attention was drawn to the box on her lap. It was empty.
“Where did you even put all that food?”
She looked at the box as well and after a second of thinking she moved her shoulders in what, with a lot of good will, could be called a half-hearted shrug.
“Girls have a second stomach for lunch.”
“... Wasn’t that for sweets?”
I got another flat look.
“That’s just silly.” Saying that, she also reached back into her own bag and handed me another sandwich. “Here. Boys need to eat more.”
“And whose fault is it that my lunch is gone?” I complained, but I still accepted the offer graciously. Though, as I thought about it, I didn’t get to eat the ones she gave me either, did I? Weren’t they in the box too?
I glanced down at the empty container again and Judy, as if reading my mind, averted her eyes with just the barest hints of embarrassment.
“You know, eating too much isn’t good for your health either,” I grumbled as I unwrapped the sandwich.
“Don't worry. All the calories go to the most attractive part of my body.”
She fell silent for a good five seconds before she almost imperceptibly cocked her head to the side.
“I decided to take that as an endearing compliment instead of a backhanded insult about my appearance. You got lucky.”
I ended the conversation with a half-hearted ‘If you say so’ and began munching on my newfound sandwich, but after the first bite I stopped. I chewed and swallowed it in record time before I turned back to my assistant with a question.
“Didn’t I buy you a couple of chicken sandwiches?”
I looked down at the sandwich in my hand and raised the top slice. “… Yeah, this is definitely not chicken.” Not only that, it had a full set of condiments and a reasonably fresh beef patty. It even had a different wrapping than the rest. “You know, if I didn’t know better, I would say this is homemade.”
My assistant nodded. “I have more if you like it,” She replied, her offer accompanied by her presenting me with a couple more similarly wrapped burgers.
“… If you had these on you, why did you make me buy you sandwiches?”
“Because those were my wages.”
During this whole conversation Judy was so straightforward and made all my questions sound so oblivious that I could only groan in annoyance.
“Fine, then I will graciously accept your offer,” With that I took another bite and started leisurely chewing… at least until I noticed how fixated Judy was on my face. For the first few bites I tried to ignore her, but at last I took a deep breath and turned to her.
“Are they any good?”
I blinked at her a few times, then quickly tried to give her a ‘that’s an oblivious question’ look. Just to return the favor.
“Of course they are. Do I actually have to say it?”
She stared at me for a few seconds without a word before she looked away and faced forwards.
“You might be good at flirting with girls, but you lack delicacy. At this rate, you will never find a girlfriend.”
I stifled a chuckle and raised the half-eaten burger to my mouth. “I will burn that bridge when I get there,” I told her and was about to take a bite when I stopped, frowned and glanced back at her. “Also, I’m not flirting with anyone.”
“Sure chief. If you say so.”
After this point, I proceeded to categorically ignore my assistant and instead focused on her burgers (and no, there was no innuendo here), which I had to admit were surprisingly tasty. There were only a couple of minutes left of the lunch break and we spent them in a comfortable silence. I periodically glanced at Josh and Snowy to see if everything was all right, but to my relief they seemed to get along surprisingly well.
When the first warning bell rang before the end of the break Snowy visibly twitched. They shared a few more words before they parted and the girl scampered to the door. She abruptly stopped there as if suddenly remembering something she forgot, then she turned around, smiled at me and gave me a small wave. I returned the gesture and a second later she was running down the stairs. While all this happened, Josh returned to our side with some residual red still coloring his cheeks. Sheesh, the guy could be really hopeless at the weirdest of times. Anyways, he sat by my side and gave me a sidelong glance.
“She is strange, isn’t she?”
“Not stranger than some other girls I know.” At this point Judy lightly poked me in the ribs with her elbow and I shooed her away saying; “That wasn’t aimed at you. Stop it.”
“I wonder if she will keep stalking me...” Josh muttered at my side in a slightly hazy voice, apparently completely disregarding the minor commotion at his side. I shrugged my shoulders in return.
“Probably won’t. There is no point now that you are on speaking terms. If she does, just call me and I will talk some sense into her.”
“Speaking of which,” My friend changed his posture so he could look me in the eye. “How exactly did you get to know her in the first place?”
It was at this time the second warning bell rang, signaling that there were only five minutes left of the break. I promptly stood up and tilted my head towards the door.
“Let’s get going. I’ll tell you on the way.”
I felt unusually tired as I left the classroom a good five minutes after the long bells signaling the end of the day sounded. Mentally, not physically. It might have had something to do with my assistant being more troublesome than usual, or Snowy showing up... Or maybe, just maybe, it was because I had to spend all the breaks between the afternoon classes restraining the princess so that she wouldn’t try to drown the newest addition to the entourage in a spoonful of water while we weren’t looking. The rest of the girls also took the news with minor reservations, but they at least attempted to feign disinterest.
I let out a weary sigh as I finally arrived in the main hall and trailed behind the rest of the group. We dispersed near the entrance to get our shoes. I headed for mine, only to stop in front of the locker and blink a few times in disbelief.
“Oh for the love of…” I murmured angrily under my breath as I noticed the piece of white paper sticking out from under its door, an exclamation I soon learned to regret.
“What is it? What is it?” Angie rushed up to me with the well-trained nose (or in this case, nosiness) of a blood hound, her eyes sparkling with equal amounts of curiosity and mischief.
“Nothing,” I grumbled while trying to hide the incriminating evidence.
“Oooooooh…” She suddenly grinned as a well-fed cat and began waving down the aisle. “Judy, come quick! Leo got another love letter!”
I sighed and began to very, very delicately grind her temples between my knuckles.
“O-ow-ow! Not fair! Violence is bad!”
“So is spreading lies.”
She broke out of my hold and glared at me in the fashion that I was pretty sure had to be a secret technique shared only between teenage girls. Meanwhile Judy also arrived to the scene and looked over us with her subdued brand of reserved interest.
“Sorry, what did you say? I couldn’t hear it properly.”
Angie looked over at my assistant and was about to open her mouth, so I quickly gained her attention by clearing my throat and making a few covert grinding motions with my fists. She audibly gulped. After a moment of hesitation she looked at me, then glanced at Judy, and at last she took a deep breath and sputtered; “Leo just got another love-letter! Bye!”
I reached after her but she slipped under my arms and immediately dashed away.
“I will get you for that!” I yelled while theatrically shaking my fist at her. She only grinned back at me from the entrance, as if saying ‘You have to catch me first!’, and left with a small wave. I let my fist down and sighed in exasperation, which was followed by another as I noted the piece of paper again.
“So, is that the love letter?” Judy asked with subdued curiosity as she stood right next to me.
Against my best efforts, my face twisted in exasperation. I had a very good idea about the sender of that letter, and I had a feeling reading it was going to be awkward enough without Judy looking over my shoulder. I could honestly do without all the hassle, especially considering the afternoon I had.
Anyways, there was no point in avoiding it. I reached out towards the locker and opened its door. The simple white envelope inside all but flew out of it as I did so, but I was prepared and caught it mid-flight. I glanced left and right before I broke it open and took out the letter.
“What does it say?” My assistant inquired quite insistently, rising to her tip-toes to get a better look. A quick glance showed that the contents weren’t particularly embarrassing after all, so I lowered it to her eye-level.
“Meet me at the roof. We need to talk,” My assistant read the words aloud. She paused for a moment before she glanced up at my face. “Not very romantic.”
“No, not really.” I pocketed the letter and closed the locker’s door again. “I guess I should go and see what this is about.”
I headed for the stairwell, but stopped after a few steps as I noticed that Judy was following after me in my shadow. I looked at her and she gave me a ‘Why did you stop?’ look.
“Why did you stop?”
“That was redundant,” I told her, much to her apparent puzzlement. She even raised an eyebrow. A little. Anyways, I told her; “You really don’t have to come along for this.” She only stared at me as if she was trying to bore a hole into my head with pure force of will, so I decided to change approaches. “Why don’t you wait for me here? I should be done in a minute.”
She honest-to-goodness puffed (though, as usual, her expression remained the same) and turned on her heel. “You don’t have to rush things. I’ll go ahead.”
Before I could get a word in she walked off, leaving me alone in front of the stairs with a mounting sense of exasperation. I watched her leave without her looking back even once. In the end I took a deep breath, cleared my mind and headed for the roof a bit more sourly than I originally planned.
I was still quite morose by the time I finished climbing the stairs, and to my surprise I found the door leading to the roof slightly ajar. That fact alone almost piqued my interest enough to shake me out of my surly mood. I carefully moved up to the exit and pushed it open with one hand.
I momentarily had to shield my eyes, but even through my fingers I could make out the figure of a girl standing in the middle of the roof. The only problem was that… well, it wasn’t the girl I was expecting.
“So you have come...” The princess stated in a voice that might have been ominous if she could have stopped herself from fidgeting for a second. I blinked a few times as my eyes got used to the glare and took a step forwards. I honestly wasn’t expecting her. I figured this would turn into one of those wacky scenes where Snowy would take my advice about writing a letter for Josh but putting it into the wrong shoe locker. I was expecting a lot of hijinks, maybe something of a heart-to-heart discussion, possibly an opportunity to ask Snowy about her vamp act... But to be perfectly honest, I was actually okay with this situation as well. I wanted to have a private talk with the princess anyways, so her letter only switched up the order of events a little.
I gave her a small smile and closed the door behind myself. “You got the key this time? Good, that means you are learning.”
“Of course,” She snapped at me. “Like I would make a fool of myself in front of you again!” For a moment it seemed like she said more than she actually wanted to and she bit her lips in frustration.
In the meantime, I was slowly making my way over to her, and to my surprise I found her constantly shifting her posture to face my direction. In fact, her stance kind of reminded me of a fencer’s, just without the sword; trying to provide as small a profile as possible while ready to jump at a moment’s notice. Hell, maybe it was a fencing stance. She was a noble archetype after all, they usually do fashionably anachronistic things like fencing and riding and speaking with ‘thous’ a lot... But back to her posture; did that mean she was on guard? Against me? The idea somehow made me strangely frustrated, so I made an effort to move as carefully and non-threateningly as possible.
“So,” I stopped at a few paces away from her and flashed my winning smile. “You wanted to discuss something, right?”
“R-Right!” As if just remembering why we were on the roof in the first place, the princess took a huge breath, paused, and then directed one of her patented soul-piercing glares at me and began to speak in a soft voice. “I wanted to talk to you one last time before...” She paused again, and I noticed some uncertainty in her expression, but then she steeled herself and began again. “No, I wanted to give you a chance to explain yourself.”
“About her,” The princess spat the words out with such venomous intensity that it actually caught me off guard.
“You mean Snowy?”
“Of course I mean her!”
“Okay then. What about her?”
At this point the princess began walking, though it could have been better described as slowly circling at a fixed distance around me without breaking her guarded posture.
“I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe you. To hell with it, I actually did believe you!” She paused, her face twisting into a pained grimace. “Only to see you stab me in the back! I saw you reveal your true colors, and I would...!”
“Okay, stop,” I stated as forcefully as I possibly could without actually shouting as I raised an open palm in her direction. The princess shuddered and did just that, staring at me with giant doe eyes for a moment before she remembered the situation and doubled down on the glare. I sighed and continued, “You are blowing this waaaaaaay out proportion.”
“Am I? Am I really?”
“Yes. Yes you do. Also, please stop strafing around me. It’s distracting.”
“S-Shut up! Don’t try to change the subject!”
“I’m not changing the subject, I’m changing the context.” Saying so I took a step forward and began walking toward her at an even, leisurely pace. For a moment I could see her panic, raising her hands in front of her in what I presumed was some kind of fancy self-defense style, but she hesitated just long enough for me to reach her. I reached out with my right hand and clasped my fingers around her extended hand. The moment our fingers made contact she let out one of her customary strings of allegedly cutesy sounds (well, okay, in this case they really were kinda cute) and tried to pull back, but by then it was too late, I had a firm grip on her.
Without further ado I picked the closest bench and began dragging her behind me. She only offered token resistance, but the entire affair was a little embarrassing, so I began to talk to her with a level, serious voice.
“Listen princess. Under normal circumstances I would let you do as you please and listen to your woes in whatever fashion you wanted. However, as it happens, you just managed to catch me in a pretty rainy mood, and I really don’t have the patience for all the bells and whistles at the moment. So, this is what we are going to do.” By pure coincidence it was the exact moment we reached the bench. Never one to let dramatic convenience give me a pause, I used my free hand to point at said bench and continued, “We are going to sit down, face each other and talk like reasonable people. No tantrums, no circling, no vague accusations. You say what’s on your mind and I will try and relate to and answer anything and everything you throw at me. Deal?”
At first the princess was pointedly avoiding my eyes and was stiff as a plank, but at last she glanced over in my direction. For a blink of an eye I could see her hesitate, but then she suddenly averted her face (probably to unsuccessfully hide her embarrassment) and then abruptly dropped her pretty backside onto the bench while still holding my hand.
“I hate you,” She muttered, and I could only smile at the amount of sulkiness on display.
“Yes, you sure do.” I sat down as well and tried to let go of her hand, but to my surprise I found her fingers holding onto mine like a vice. For a moment I thought about whether I should ask her to let go, but after a bit of brain-wracking I decided against it. She was obviously still a bundle of nerves, and I didn’t want to set her off with something like this. In the end I cleared my throat and breached the topic.
“So, you wanted to talk about Snowy, right?” The question seemingly took her aback, but then she gave me a tentative nod. “So? What is the problem?”
“The problem…” She began with a level voice, though at the same time her hand proceeded to squeeze mine angrily. “The problem is that you are her ally.”
She stammered for a moment, but then she glared at me all the fiercer.
“Yes, you are! You stopped me from chasing her away!”
“We are in school. Of course I stopped you from starting a fight.”
“But she is seducing Joshua!”
I gave her a wry look.
“You know, I can distinctly remember a transfer student who came here with the express purpose of seducing a certain friend of mine not too long ago. Can you guess who I am thinking about?”
She immediately averted her eyes and flushed crimson.
“S-Shut up! That was completely different! I had legitimate reasons for that!”
“Really? Maybe she does as well. Have you tried talking to her?”
“No she doesn't! It’s just in her nature to seduce men, that dirty...” I was afraid she would get into an angry diatribe, but instead her voice slowly trailed off into a quiet mumble as her eyes opened wide as saucers before she abruptly yelled out, “That’s it!”
“That’s what? Also, careful with the volume settings there.”
Suddenly excited, the princess clasped her hands together, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that she was tugging my arm in the process.
“I figured it all out! I can’t believe I didn't think of this sooner! I was such a fool!”
I sighed and gave her a look that roughly translated to ‘Enough buildup, please give me the punchline.’ She gave me a knowing smile and tried to point at me, but then she paused and raised her other hand instead. So she was aware of holding onto me! She had to be!
“Listen Leo,” She leaned closer to look into my eyes before she continued, “Whatever she might have promised you, whatever feminine charms she might have shown you, you have to understand that she is only using you. You have to…”
I raised an open palm to make her stop and then used the same palm to bury my face in. “I just realized what you were getting at,” I grumbled while massaging my temples with one hand, “You think I was seduced by her, didn’t you?”
“Errr… You weren’t?” I gave her a flat look and she blinked in surprise before she exclaimed in a weird mix of worry and relief. “You weren’t!”
I shook my head and let my hand down. “Seriously now, you must have a really weird idea about how seduction works.”
“But… Why didn’t she try to seduce you?”
“Well, technically she tried…” I admitted ruefully, if only to ruffle her feathers, “I just told her to cut it out.”
“You did what? … Why?”
“Because it was really awkward? I don’t even know why she puts up the vamp act, to be honest, because she is embarrassingly bad at it. It might have something to do with her family; or at least the last time I talked with her brother it, seemed like she was doutbling down on the charade in front of him. I didn’t want to pry then, but I guess I will have to the next time I speak with her, especially so that she would stop doing that in front of Josh at the very least. They got along better once I stopped her from doing it anyway and… why are you looking at me like that?”
The princess twitched and immediately proceeded to try (and fail) to casually close her still hanging jaw.
“You… Told her to stop seducing Joshua?”
“And… she stopped?”
“Mostly. She still relapses into it from time to time, but she is making progress.”
“I see… And when… did you talk to her brother?”
“Friday. On the phone.”
“Do you… talk to him often?”
“Nah, it was a one-off thing. It’s a long story, but suffices to say, I don’t plan on talking to him any time soon. He sounded like a dick.”
The princess only nodded and it was around this time I noticed how sweaty her palm was getting. I tried to loosen my grip on her, but instead she just squeezed even harder as she spoke in a low, melancholic voice.
“You know… Sometimes I wonder if I should be scared of you…”
“Where did that come from?” She looked at me, ready to answer, but in the end she closed her mouth again and averted her eyes. I let out an amused chuckle at her unusually timid display. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
For a while she didn’t react, but at last she faced me with a determined look in her eyes.
“I would like to, but first you need to tell me whose side you are on.”
“Do I really have to? Take a side, I mean?” She only continued to stare into my soul without even twitching a muscle, so I sighed in resignation. “Fine. If you really want to know, I’m on Josh’s side.”
“You mean… you are neutral?”
“Kind of, but not quite,” I replied while thoughtfully scratching my chin. “I have my own situation here, but as far as your little thing over Josh is concerned, I just want to provide everyone an equal opportunity while maintaining a drama- and annoyance-free environment which, if I may add, is a lot harder than it sounds because of certain people refusing to get a clue.”
“I see…” The princess mumbled to herself, apparently still not getting said clue. “And that ‘equal opportunity’ includes her too?”
“Naturally,” She still seemed skeptical, so I gave her a reassuring smile. “She is actually a really nice girl once you get to know her. You should give her a chance.”
“Are you sure?”
“Even if I ask really, really nicely? I can be really persuasive.” After saying that I promptly proceeded to give her the puppy-eyes treatment. At first her eyes opened wide but then she swiftly turned away from me.
“Awawa! Fine, fine, just stop doing that!”
“See, I told you,” I chuckled heartily for a while. “Is there anything else?”
“Just…” She hesitated for a moment before she turned back to me, her eyes once again serious. “What if she still tries something?”
I sighed, partly to hide my mounting frustration, and answered; “I will do something about it.”
“Do I have your word on it?”
I awarded her a flat stare in lieu of a flat no and stood up, pulling her with me.
“You know what? We should get going. I’ll take you home. I think we are done with the most pressing points, we should discuss the fine print on the way.”
“Wait, you didn’t promise! Also, don’t I even have a say in this?”
I pointedly glanced at our still clasped hands and said; “I figured you want to go home together.”
Her eyes followed mine and then they opened wide as saucers in a show of slow-motion bewilderment. Or at the very least I really hoped it was just a show, otherwise I would have had to conclude that the princess really wasn’t aware that she was gripping my hand for a good ten minutes at that point. I mean, she had to be... The alternative was just way too silly, even for her.
Anyways, she let out a string of cutesy yelps long enough to constitute its own language and let go of my hand like it was red-hot iron.
“I-I-It wasn’t on purpose!”
“It was an accident!”
“I was just caught up in the heat of the moment! It meant nothing.”
“Obviously. You don’t need to explain yourself.” She finally fell silent, though if the way she was biting her lip was any indication, it took her a lot of effort. I picked up my bag from under the bench where I deposited it when we sat down, and seeing me doing that prompted the princess to scamper off and get her own bag from behind one of the trashcans in the corner of the roof. She returned just as I was reaching the door, and by then she even managed to get her complexion under control and returned to a less-crimson flesh-tone.
We walked down the stairs, changed our shoes and left the school building without sharing as much as a single word. In fact if the princess weren’t sticking to me almost uncomfortably closely we could have passed for complete strangers, and it didn’t help that she refused to even look my way. We were already halfway to her mansion by the time I finally got fed up with the silence and decided to break the ice. All I needed was a nice topic.
“You know, I’m kind of under the weather,” She finally looked at me, though she had about a second of slip. I smiled at her and added, “Hey, is Sebastian around? I could use a good verbal sparring to liven up my day.”
“Don’t do that!” She burst out so suddenly that I almost missed a step, going from meek to her usual tone in about one nanosecond. “Do you have any idea how long he lectured me about not associating with rude people like you the last time you spoke!?”
“Really? That’s nice. It means I made an impression.”
“A bad impression. Don’t make it even worse.”
“What about Josh?” She tilted her head questioningly, so I rushed to clarify. “Did he say anything about him? Especially in comparison to me?”
“No. Not particularly.”
“Really?” I clicked my tongue. “Damn, I hoped it would help.”
She silently stared at me for several seconds, the gears so obviously turning in her head that I could hear their creaking in my mind’s ear, until she suddenly pointed at me with a drawn-out “Ah!”
“You made him angry so Joshua would look better in comparison!”
“Well, no, I pissed him off because I found it hilarious, but it was a side-benefit, yes. Too bad it didn’t work.”
Her fingertip suddenly closed the distance and poked me in the chest. “Don’t ever do that again!”
“All of it! It’s unfair!”
“The magic word?”
She gave me a truly blank look, like I just spoke in a completely different language.
“What do you mean?”
It took all my willpower not to bury my face in my hands. “The magic word is ‘please’. It’s a common idiom; don’t tell me you never heard it.”
She started shaking her head, but halfway through she stopped, took a deep breath and said, “Please don’t do that again.”
“Oh fine. But only because you asked so nicely.” I paused for a moment. “Still, can I annoy the old guy if we meet anyway? Just a little? For old times’ sake?”
I would have probably kept teasing her about the topic until we arrived to her home, if not for our conversation being suddenly (and rudely) interrupted by a deep and altogether all too familiar voice.
“Now look at that, boys! It seems like it’s our lucky day!”
“Right boss, very lucky!”
I didn’t even need to turn around to recognize the three delinquents sauntering out of a nearby alley, hands in pockets and stepping at a rhythm like they were extras in a particularly low-budget Broadway rendition of Grease.
“Well, if it isn’t our resident goldfish-poop gang,” I exclaimed with fake joviality flavored by a spoonful of sarcasm and about a metric ton of ‘shit-I-am-too-tired-for-this-itude’. Sadly, our language has no adequate word to properly describe the exact emotion, but I was working on it.
“Fancy meeting you here,” The behemoth with the pompadour to end all pompadours exclaimed as he walked up to us, his two flunkies right on his heels like loyal hunting dogs. “And look at that! He has a new girlfriend this time!”
“Yah, another pretty one too.”
“Friends of yours?” The princess inquired at my side. Her posture straightened the moment she heard the guy’s voice and now every pore of her being was emanating the same regal superiority she had when she first showed up at the school. It actually made me realize just how used I got to her dropping her guard around me as of late, but I didn’t have time to ponder on the issue at this moment.
“Acquaintances. Long story. Let me do the talking.”
Once I finished whispering to her I straightened myself, forced a neighborly smile onto my lips and took a long step forwards.
“Wow, what a coincidence. I haven’t seen you guys in a while,” I rubbed my hands together and let my smile gain a bit of a wolfish edge. “Let me guess, after your last humiliation you spent all your time preparing for our next encounter, and now you are here to show me what you’ve got.”
“Not all our time...” The short flunky protested, albeit weakly.
The big guy, Tony if I remember correctly, on the other hand flared his nostrils and crossed his arms in front of his chest as he replied; “We are!”
“Though it’s not like we were looking for you in particular or anything...” Tall guy with the nasal voice added in a quiet voice, eliciting a snapping glare from his boss.
“Shut up Jones, you are ruining the moment!”
“So, what is it this time? Are we still going with literature?”
The big guy let out a short but resounding belly laugh and grinned at me provocatively.
“Nah, we are not doing that anymore!”
“I still think we should have gone with the Potter books...” The tall one mumbled, but not quietly enough to escape the notice of mister pompadour
“I told you Jones, we are not theme-naming ourselves after children’s books characters, and that’s final!”
“Actually, technically the books were written to grow up with the audience, so the last few books are considered young adult fiction,” Came the counter-point from the short guy, his high-pitched voice sounding unusually dignified for a moment.
“Nuh-uh-uh! I don’t give a flying crap about your literary theory Honey-Badger! We are not doing it, and that’s final!”
“What was that?” I interrupted, “Honey-Badger?”
“Yah!” The small guy flashed a shit-eating grin that revealed a chipped incisor. “Because they are small but though and mean.”
“I see... So you are going for an animal-motif. What about you?”
“Me?” The tall guy twitched as he noticed I was looking at him and instinctively straightened his back. “I’m Giraffe Jones.”
“Hm... There is a bit of alliteration there. That’s good. But, why ‘giraffe’ in particular? They aren’t particularly fierce.”
“Oh, but they do have a mean kick! And they can run surprisingly fast. Plus they have no natural predators that regularly hunt them because they are so imposing... and I think they are cool.”
“I see, fair enough. And you, big guy?”
Tony in the middle puffed his chest, though I was pretty sure it was just for show. As far as his eyes were concerned, they were about one third as self-assured as the rest of his body language was insisting on. He forcefully cleared his throat like he was preparing for a big speech in front of an audience before he, at last, spoke with a voice that suggested he had little confidence in our hearing.
“I am Tony the Elephant!”
“I see,” I nodded thoughtfully and raised my arms, crossing one in front of my chest and using the other to prop up my chin in my best impression of a stereotypical art-house critic. “African elephant or Indian elephant?”
“I said,” I repeated with a raised voice, “African elephant or Indian elephant?”
“I... Idunno. African, I guess? Does it make a difference?”
“Oh, I see...” I nodded twice for emphasis. So it’s an elephant because you are big, your hairdo is the trunk and it’s African because of your ears. Clever.”
“What? What is your problem with my ears?! There is nothing weird about my ears, right, Honey-Badger?”
“No boss, yer ears are perfectly fine!” The little guy whined like a battered housewife which was actually a little disturbing, but not enough to break my act.
Tony turned back to me and gave me a hurt glare. “You see, there is nothing wrong with my ears!”
“Hmmm...” I leaned closer as if I was examining an art-piece and periodically nodded to myself like I was making profound discoveries. At last I straightened up and nodded. “Right, on closer look your ears seem to fall into the range of the national average. I suppose your new name just predisposed me to associate big ears with you.”
“Well, you were wrong! My ears are perfectly fine, right, Jones?”
“Yeah boss. Maybe they are a bit on the meaty side, but they are nice ears. Really nice ears. No one would think they are too big.”
“Unless you bring attention to them,” I quipped with a smirk. The culturally ambiguous pachyderm gave me a piercing look before he threw his hands into the air with a loud “Bah!”
“Fine, then I am an Indian elephant! Are you happy now?”
“I don’t know,” I raised my hand to my chin again and began to scratch it. “Wouldn’t that throw off your theme? The rest are African animals, so if you are Indian then it will look like you are separate from the rest.”
“He is right, boss,” The tall guy agreed with me, quite unexpectedly. “Indian elephants are also domesticated.”
“Not all of them! And they are still big and mean!”
“The name doesn’t fit either,” I proceeded with the coup de grace in a purposefully absent-minded voice. “If you just call yourself elephant, people will still thing of African ones, and if you qualify it by saying you are an Indian one it just sound too long and convoluted. I think it would be best if you scrapped the whole elephant idea and picked something else.”
“Like what, genius?” He sneered at me, and I shrugged my shoulders in return.
“Don’t ask me, it’s your nickname.”
“How ‘bout a hippo?” The short guy proposed with a smile. “They are big and mean and they live in Africa.”
“I won’t be no stinking hippo!” Tony bellowed. “They are fat and they slap their crap all over the place with their tails. It’s disgusting!”
“You know what?” I gave the guys a broad smile and took a step to the side. “It was nice talking to you, but we are in a bit of a hurry. How about you get back to me once you finalized your nicknames?”
“Yeah, whatever, move along,” The boss grunted at me and then returned to the discussion. “How about a rhino?”
“I don’t know boss... Won’t that draw attention to your nose?”
“What’s your problem with my nose?!”
“Nothing boss, it’s a perfectly serviceable nose boss, but what if other people...”
That was the last sliver of the discussion I caught before we rounded a corner and the trio was out of earshot. At last I relaxed my posture and limbered up my shoulders with a small sigh.
“Well, that filled my people-annoying quota for the day. Now I won’t even have to bother your butler. A win for everyone, I say.”
The princess glanced over her shoulder with an uncertain expression.
“Does this happen often?”
“At this point it’s pretty regular, yes.”
“... You need to find better friends.”
“I have. I’m taking one of them home as we speak.”
I punctuated the statement in a no way cocky smile, and she predictably averted her eyes and, less predictably, punched me in the shoulder. Unlike Judy’s love-taps, this one actually stung a little.
“Stop teasing me. I hate you.”
“Yeah, you sure do…”
It was a little after ten PM when my phone rang, almost on schedule. I was in the middle of looking up just what character-archetype fit Snowy the best. Stepford-smiler? The Pretender? The Vamp? The Vamp Pretender? More research was needed in that direction.
Anyways, I reached over my desk, right where I put my phone when I came home after I dropped the princess off in front of her gates earlier that afternoon. I didn’t even look at the caller ID before I accepted the call.
“You know, I love these evening talks, but we should really bring them an hour earlier. You are not getting any quality sleep like this.” There was only silence on the other end of the line, so I added a tentative “Hello?”
“Um... H-Hello? It’s me, Neige.”
“Oh?” I reflexively sat a little straighter. “Sorry, I thought it was someone else. Hi.”
There was another round of silence, though I could have sworn I have heard fidgeting from the other side.
“Are you the one making this noise or the line?”
“It’s me, I think. I am hiding under the blankets.”
“... Okay, thanks for clarifying that.” As she mentioned it, I also realized she sounded a bit strained, like she was trying to whisper loud enough for me to hear, but not too loudly. I ventured an educated guess and asked “It’s so that your brother wouldn’t notice?”
“I see...” Her single word answer was so melancholic that it threw my train of thoughts off the rails for a moment, but then I remembered the situation and asked the obvious question I should have in the first place. “So, what do I owe the honor of this late call?”
“It... It’s a figure of speech.”
“Oh.” Another momentary silence later Snowy took a breath so deep it was audible on my side as well and continued in a whisper. “I wanted to thank you.”
“You are welcome,” I answered by reflex. “But… about what it particular.”
“For helping me. For giving me a chance. It’s more than I ever deserved.”
“Now, now. Don’t put yourself down like that.”
“You don’t understand... I... I was eavesdropping on you when you talked to the blonde girl. On the roof.”
“You mean the princess?”
“Ah, right. Her name is Eleanor; I just call her that out of habit.”
“Like you call me Snowy?”
“Yeah. Is there a problem with that?”
“N-No. I like it.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Anyways, you said you were eavesdropping?”
“Sorry. I just... I wanted to thank you in person, so I waited at the entrance, but then I saw you head back and I got curious. I followed after you.” I tried to say some filler-words to maintain my side of the conversation, but she abruptly continued and cut me off. “I saw you confront her. You stood up for me. And the things you said... It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
“Now you are just exaggerating.”
“No, I mean it. Thank you.”
I couldn’t keep myself from chuckling awkwardly.
“Gosh, you are making me blush.” She didn’t reply to that, so I tried to take the initiative, but something caught my attention. “Wait... are you crying?”
“I’m sorry,” She replied in a nasal voice. “I’m just... We barely know each other and you are so nice to me. Too nice. I don’t know what to say.”
I sighed and switched the phone to my other hand.
“Listen Snowy. I don’t know your entire history, true. I don’t even know that much about you as a person. What I do know is that you are nice and you deserve a chance as much as anyone else, whatever your family situation might be.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course I do.” I heard her sniffing on the other side and waited for her to finish. “Speaking of which, I was thinking about introducing you to the other girls around Josh.”
There was another pause, this time more surprised than awkward.
“Are you sure that is a good idea?”
“Well, no, not 100% sure, but it’s the most prudent thing to do. If you want to talk to Josh properly instead of just stalking him, you need to be able to interact with them as well. You started off with the wrong foot, but I have already taken care of the princess and the rest should follow suit. Just act like yourself, be nice and don’t lapse into your vamping and they will be your friends before you know it.”
“Are you serious?”n
“Sure I am.”
“You are once again welcome.” I was about to change the topic when there was some extra rustle coming from the other side and Snowy’s voice died down to a barely audible whisper.
“I have to hang up; there’s someone in the hallway. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
By the time I could utter a feeble “Bye,” she already hung up. I took the phone from my ear and looked at the caller ID. I didn’t remember giving her my number, but now at least I had hers as well. I was in the middle of saving it into my contacts list when the phone rang again; startling me to the point I almost let it slip out of my hand. I grabbed hold of it mid-flight with a stifled curse and took a look at the screen, this time making sure to check the ID. After that I raised it to my ear and said;
“You know, I love these evening talks, but we should really bring them an hour earlier. You are not getting any quality sleep like this.”
“Sure,” My assistant answered immediately. “I tried calling you before. Who were you talking to?”
“Straight to the point, aren’t you? Snowy called.”
“Did she forget to say something on the roof?”
“So you thought the letter was from her too?” I let out a purposefully loud relieved sigh. “Thank goodness, I thought it was just me.”
“… So she wasn’t the one who wrote the letter?”
“Nope. It was the princess.” I could hear her clicking her tongue. “What?”
“Nothing,” She answered even more flatly than usual. “What did she want?”
At this point I told her everything that happened after she left in the most extensive and accurate manner possible. Well, fine, I might have changed a few things when I talked about our encounter with the goldfish poop gang, mainly to further emphasize my stellar wit and disarming charm, but I stayed true to the original spirit of the events; so it was all good in the end. Telling the entire story took about ten minutes.
“… and then I told Sebastian that he should really get a handlebar mustache to complete the look.”
“What did he say to that?”
“I don’t know, I was running at that point.”
“… Why must you antagonize people at random?”
“Because it’s hilarious.”
Judy didn’t respond to that, instead she took a sharp left turn in the conversation and said; “Are you still saying you are not playing favorites?”
“With the princess?”
“Not her. With the stalker girl.”
“Her name is… well, actually her name is not Snowy, but that’s beside the point. Also, I am not playing favorites. I thought I made that clear during lunch-break.”
“Then you need to re-evaluate your standards of ‘playing favorites’, because it sure looks like that from where I’m standing.”
“Oh please. I’m just being helpful.”
“Are you sure?”
I let out a sharp breath and leaned back in my chair. “Listen, if you want to say something, just say it.”
“I think you are getting too involved.”
Her answer was instantaneous. I was expecting at least some hesitation. I had to conclude that she had to be waiting for me to give her the go all along.
“Fine, fine. I might have involved myself more than strictly necessary, but it was mostly for my own peace of mind. Did you want to keep watching Snowy ineffectually stalk Josh until something stupidly dramatic happened? Or stupidly comedic? Or just stupid in general?”
“Even if that happens, it’s their business. Weren’t we supposed to only observe?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“You specifically hid your amnesia and theories from others to keep our observations unbiased. By meddling like this you are—”
“Fine, fine. I get it. Geez… When did you become such a stick-in-the-mud?”
“It’s my job to keep you straight. I get paid for it.”
“True enough.” I paused to take a big breath and clean my head. “Fine, no more meddling. I will introduce Snowy to the gang tomorrow because I already promised, but afterwards I wouldn’t interfere.”
“No more chaperoning.”
“And definitely no more flirting.”
“… I still have no idea why you have this weird idea about me.”
“The fact that you can’t perceive the problem is a problem in and of itself.”
“But I don’t flirt.”
“Tell that to—” It seemed like Judy finally noticed that her voice was getting pretty heated, so she quickly toned it down to her usual monotone. It still sounded a little strained though. “Never mind. It’s getting late.”
“Hey! Don’t just end your sentence like that and leave me hanging!”
“Good night chief. I am going to get some quality sleep now.”
“Haaah… Good night, sleep well.”
There was an affirmatory grunt and then she cut the line. I sighed and put the phone down back onto the desk. I knew that she was right. Not the flirting part, that was still dead wrong and a misunderstanding of epic proportions, but she was right about my involvement. I let myself get carried away and got myself involved with Snowy’s and Josh’s issue too closely. I had to agree, I really should take a step back.
With that in mind I returned to my computer screen with renewed determination and opened my browser again. Where was I again, Oh, right…
“Maybe she is a variation of the ‘Femme Fatale’…?”